Building a youth-driven opportunity movement
Read this story in Opportunity Nation's blog.
By Paul Kendrick
In late June, three Opportunity Leaders and I had the chance to address 300 high school students who are taking part in BBYO’s summer camp session for their most engaged leaders. BBYO is a youth movement that connects more than 50,000 Jewish teens from across the country and the world. The camp was in Lake Como, PA, and we were invited so these young adults could learn from us about movement building and increasing opportunity in America.
Eva Shang, Will Staton, Sam Novey and I shared our insights about leadership, engaging passionate people and achieving goals on behalf of a campaign. As Opportunity Leaders all do something different that is helping to empower and engage young Americans, Eva spoke about prison and criminal justice reform, Will spoke about education and Sam discussed civic engagement. I covered the bipartisan work of our Opportunity Nation campaign to reduce youth disconnection and advance meaningful youth employment. We each talked about these topics in separate sessions during breakout discussions, so more students could connect with us, and later we appeared together on a panel and had the chance to answer more questions.
Eva, Will and Sam are incredible advocates for these issues, so I’ll let each of them tell you more about the night from their perspective:
I was thrilled to see so many young people from such diverse backgrounds with a surprisingly broad awareness of criminal and juvenile justice issues in the United States. When I was in high school, I knew very little about prison reform. But it speaks to the depth of the issue and the momentum gathering around criminal justice reform in the United States that so many 15, 16-year-olds today are aware of the crisis of mass incarceration. With young people on our side, no social movement can fail.
The evening was an exciting chance to put some of what I’ve learned as an Opp Leader into action, and share best practices for building a movement with a group of engaged and inspired teens. Not only was it exciting for me to exercise my skills in solidarity with Eva and Sam, but it was a wonderful chance to see the efficacy of Opportunity Nation’s ideals and ideas in action. And it was powerful to see the enthusiasm with which we were met by future leaders who are eager to improve the world. Big thank you to both BBYO and Opportunity Nation for making experiences like these a reality for me and others!
It was such a privilege for me to learn from the BBYO teen movement leaders on Monday night.
Whenever I talk with young people about why it’s so important to vote, I make sure to first raise up the experiences that make them feel disillusioned and disempowered. Hope and inspiration and feel-good talk about civic engagement are all fine and great, but we need to have an honest conversation about feelings of powerlessness first in order to effectively combat it with love and solidarity.
One student mentioned that he’d felt disillusioned when a politician came to his school and acted disrespectfully towards students by showing up late, in sweatpants, without prepared remarks. Then a second student mentioned a similar experience. Then a third.
And then I saw them look at each other and I’m pretty sure it all clicked for them and for me. These experiences were connected. The elected officials acted out of the same misconceptions of teens and the political power of young Americans. And maybe we could change it by organizing and increasing voter turnout in the next election.
It was just one look of recognition we all shared, but it made the whole night worth it.
The students we met were hungry to learn new ways to strengthen their chapters so they could make bigger impacts when they returned home. By the end, we had heard from students who wanted to become Opportunity Leaders and those who planned to get more of their peers involved in doing things that close the opportunity gap in America. We are excited to continue finding ways to bring our message to more people and get them involved in our Opportunity Nation campaign and we can’t thank our Opportunity Leaders enough for their passion, talent and commitment.
Eva Shang is a junior at Harvard University and the founder of the Student Alliance for Prison Reform, a nationwide network of students working in prison education and reform. She directs a tutoring program at a medium-security women’s prison, and is passionate about second chances in the juvenile justice system. You can follow Eva on Twitter: @eva_shang
Will Staton is assistant director of recruitment at Democracy Prep Public Schools, a network of charter schools operating in New York City, Camden, NJ and Washington DC. A native of Mississippi, Will taught history in Memphis, Tenn. with Teach for America after he graduated from Washington University in St. Louis. You can follow him on Twitter: @wstaton85
Sam Novey is the founder of the National Student Vote Challenge. He got his start in politics in 2006 as a field organizer and staff assistant for a congressional campaign. Later, he worked as social media director for statewide and senate campaigns. Before his current role at the Foundation for Civic Leadership, Sam started the TurboVote college partnership program, which has now grown to serve 80,000 students on more than 220 partner campuses. You can follow him on Twitter: @noveyator
Paul Kendrick is Opportunity Nation’s Director of Coalition and Grassroots Engagement, working with partner organizations across the country, as well as Opportunity Nation’s Leaders and Scholars, on the campaign to increase opportunity in America.